May 1 is commemorated as the International Labour Day all over the world, including Pakistan. It is a public holiday to “celebrate the social and economic achievements of the workforce”, and highlights their struggle against the exploitative forces during the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century that heralded a new era in relations between the workers and employers. The employers’ greed for profits led them to maximise it at the social and economic suffering of the working class. They were made to work for long hours (16 or more) with meagre wages, unsafe working conditions and no compensation in case of an accident or illness. In 1886, the workers in Chicago protested against these social injustices. They even sacrificed their lives for the acceptance of their demand to reduce the working hours; they raised flags printed with blood symbolising the sacrifices of their colleagues, who had died during the movement, and the struggle of labour movement.
With the passage of time, the world changed rapidly. The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia highlighted the role of the working class, which led the employers to understand their problems. Further, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) was established in 1919 and its Constitution stated that universal and lasting peace can only be established if it is based upon social justice by reducing the deprivation of the working class, ensuring the right of freedom of association, abolishing child and bonded labour, paying reasonable wages and improving working conditions. These principles were again reaffirmed in the Philadelphia Declaration that was passed in 1944 after WWII. It maintains that:
i The war against want needs to be carried on with unrelenting vigour by continuous and concerted international effort in which the representatives of workers and employers, enjoying equal status with those of governments, join with them in free discussion and democratic decision with a view to promoting common welfare.
i All human beings, irrespective of race, creed or sex, have the right to pursue both their material well being and spiritual development in conditions of freedom and dignity, of economic security and equal opportunity.
After the end of the cold war, the world turned unipolar. International financial institutions wanted member states to promote free trade with soft and flexible labour laws in favour of corporations and privatise the public sector, reducing the role of public services. With the globalisation of economy and free trade, the developed countries with their advanced technologies became much superior as compared to the developing countries; it increased the rich-poor gap between states. Against this backdrop, the strength of the trade union movement weakened due to deregulation and privatisation of the public sector. Needless to say, the soft labour laws are a violation of the fundamental rights of the workers.
As the working class in Pakistan observes this day, it also faces many challenges in addition to terrorism, poor governance, and severe electricity and gas loadshedding, that have led to the closure of industries making millions of workers jobless. Thus, there is a need to improve the present system for the workforce by:-
i Abolishing feudalism.
i Evolving a policy of national economic self-reliance.
i Developing industries and agriculture on modern technology.
i Developing human resources to meet the requirements of local and international labour markets.
i Abolishing child and bonded labour.
i Ensuring social protection to the working class.
i Eliminating disparity between the rich and the poor.
i Enforcing labour laws through independent labour inspection committees.
The writer is the general secretary of Pakistan Workers Confederation.